As we slide towards winter, we need all the good news on energy costs we can get. So it is a relief that domestic prices for both gas and electricity are falling.
From October, NIE Energy is cutting electricity bills by 5%. This follows a 10.8% reduction in bills in January this year.
Householders fortunate enough to have domestic gas supplies will benefit from a 17.7% cut in charges if they are supplied by Firmus, or 19% from Phoenix, also from October.
However, praise for the energy suppliers is limited. While welcoming the cuts in charges from the gas companies, the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland is more critical of NIE.
Antoinette McKeown, chief executive, says that a saving of £26 a year is “negligible” for those who cannot afford to have warm homes — people in so-called ‘fuel poverty’.
“Coming after a 40% reduction in wholesale fuel over the last year and after Phoenix’s decision to reduce bills by 19% and Firmus by 17.7%, consumers will understandably be very disappointed,” says McKeown.
The inability to pay for a warm home is a particular problem in Northern Ireland. It has the highest rate of fuel poverty in the UK, as well as the lowest average earnings of all UK regions.
And because it is without a widespread distribution system for heating gas, households are forced into using oil and electricity for home heating — which are much more expensive sources of heat.
According to Phoenix, oil costs 10% more to heat your home than does gas.
This is bad news when 70% of households here rely on heating oil — compared to just 20% in Great Britain.
Yet gas supplies are geographically restricted. Phoenix supplies only in the Greater Belfast area, while Firmus operates only in Londonderry, Limavady, Ballymoney, Ballymena, Coleraine, Antrim, Craigavon, Banbridge, Newry and Armagh.
But for pensioners and others who live in fuel poverty there are a range of grants and other assistance that can help make their homes warmer this winter.
One of these is the Warm Homes Scheme, which is now run by the Bryson charity on behalf of the Department for Social Development.
The scheme provides grants of up to £850 for home insultation for people on various benefits, including pension credit, disability living allowance, housing benefit and income-based jobseekers’ allowance.
Some people may be entitled to additional support to improve or install central heating and be eligible for grants of up to £4,300. Further information on the Warm Homes Scheme is available on 0800 988 0559.
Non-means-tested grants for home insulation are also available. These are provided through the Energy Saving Trust.
Grants are also available from Phoenix to its customers to install modern condensing gas boilers —which are much more efficient than old boilers.
Long life light bulbs are available from as little as 99p each by special offer arranged by NIE with various retailers — details are available from the NIE website, at www.nie-yourenergy .co.uk/lighting/index.php .
Householders with greater ambitions for making their homes low carbon have other options to obtain grants.
Financial support of up to £2,500 is available to install micro generators, including wind turbines, solar panels, biomass boilers and ground source heat pumps.
Details are published at www.lowcarbonbuildings.org.uk/home/ .
Even those householders who are not eligible for financial support can still make big savings by being sensible.
A good place to start is with the Northern Ireland Energy Agency (0800 512 012), which provides personal advice on how to cut energy costs and carbon emissions. It also provides detailed information on grants available to assist with energy-saving measures.
An equally useful source of advice of the Energy Saving Trust, which reports that households can typically save £330 a year through improved energy conservation.
Noel Williams, head of the trust in Northern Ireland, says: “There are some very easy ways to save energy in your home, but sometimes these might not be obvious.”
He suggests people phone the agency on 0800 512 012 for further information and to obtain information on insulation grants.
“The advice centre acts as a one-stop-shop for people to access information on the simple things that can really make a difference, like switching appliances off stand-by, insulating the loft, or even installing solar panels,” explains Williams.